Matthew Welch: Finding Ground in the Uncommon

Most music nowadays is some kind of cultural hybrid, but rarely is someone as all over the map as Matthew Welch. Welch’s music is the by-product of an unlikely blend—Indonesian gamelan, Scottish bagpipes, and indie rock. While these types of music might initially seem completely unrelated, Welch has found his compositional voice in their common ground.

If you analyze each of these musical traditions, you will find connections. For example, gamelan music and rock rely heavily on repetition and infectious rhythmic cycles. Music traditionally played on pipes or by gamelan is frequently pentatonic. Pipes and rock can both be deafeningly loud. But the arrival at such a synthesis is nevertheless an unusual destination, especially since the sources are so geographically scattered. Yet to hear Welch describe the origins of his one-of-a-kind journey, it almost comes across as an all-American coming of age story. Well, sort of:

When I became aware that I wanted to be a musician and gravitated toward something slightly different, pop was the accessible model. I got really into They Might Be Giants as a kid and that inspired me to pick up the accordion. But it wasn’t as pungent as I thought it would be, and within a year I was on pipes. […] I grew up in a pretty small town in the panhandle of Florida and there happened to be an Irish pub there that sponsored a pipe band; it was basically me and a bunch of old pipers that they would teach for free. Me and my family would go to the mall on Saturday afternoon and they’d drop me off for a piping lesson.

Gamelan entered his life somewhat later, also through serendipity. The large classroom where Welch studied music as an undergrad at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University had a gamelan stored in the corner, which distracted him during his lessons and made him eager to experiment with it. Over time this curiosity became a way for Welch to explore counterpoint, something he was unable to do with bagpipes since they can only play a constant drone underneath whatever melody is played on them. Eventually he went to Bali, bringing his pipes along to jam with local musicians there, and it all clicked for him.

To create opportunities for these disparate musical languages to converse with each other, Welch, like so many musicians before him, formed his own group. But even among the myriad composer-led performance vehicles scattered across our landscape, Welch’s idiosyncratic combination of bagpipes, flute, viola, keyboards, electric guitars, bass, and drums stands out. Equal parts rock band and contemporary music ensemble, it even has an extremely unusual name—Blarvuster. Says Welch:

Ten years ago it seemed that I wanted to have this esoteric name that sounded like a Scandinavian metal band, but Blarvuster is the name of a tune from the most ancient bagpipe music called pibroch. This was the oldest tune that I could find in the printed repertoire and curiously it was very minimalist; it seems like it could have been a Steve Reich piece.

While Blarvuster remains his primary compositional outlet, Welch has also composed over 70 works for all sorts of combinations, including a particularly gorgeous Southeast Asian-inspired string quartet called Siubhal Turnlar (performed by the Flux Quartet on a composer portrait CD called Dream Tigers that was released by John Zorn’s Tzadik label in 2005). His recent opera, Borges and the Other, which was staged last month in Brooklyn at Roulette as part of the series “Experiments in Opera” and which features an expanded version of Blarvuster, remains his largest work to date and provides perhaps the most elaborate showcase for Welch’s unique compositional vocabulary. To create such a score for a story involving Argentina’s celebrated modernist writer, rather than, say, experimenting with tango, seems much more inventive though somehow counterintuitive. Welch, however, claims that he was infatuated with Borges’s writing long before he started blending these different musical genres and that Borges ultimately “inspired this crazy magical combination.”

“Crazy magical” is a good way of putting it. As musical barriers continue to erode and omnivorous polystylism has become commonplace, Welch’s juxtapositions are still a little bit further outside the norm and the audience response to his sonic amalgamation over the past decade remains somewhere between bewilderment and surprise.

I’ve had piping friends come to my shows and they were like, “O.K. That was really strange.” Some of my gamelan friends are not quite into the bagpipes. And the rockers are like, “This is really heady music.”

By seamlessly weaving together musical threads that seem like they shouldn’t fit together but resoundingly do, Welch has forged a highly personal sound world that offers challenges and rewards for open-minded listeners.

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